Blue Polyester Hug 

Image courtesy Ohlman Consorti, Vestoj On Everyday Life

Last year, I flew myself to Seoul for a research trip which happened to take place in my hometown. My grandfather had fallen ill not so long before and I managed to sneak in a hospital visit during my trip before he passed.

My parents drove me to a small hospital in a quite dingy area. Upon arrival, we were told to put on a blue hazmat suit for our body, gloves for our hands, shoe caps for our feet, a mask and a plastic guard for our face. I found the process over the top, but it was for the good of the vulnerable elderly patients, for whom this hospital took exclusive care. We each begrudgingly took a PCR test (in 2023!) and headed upstairs to see my grandfather. He was a very healthy man, so I was not prepared for what I was about to see.

I knew it was an old people’s home, but I realised I had never been in one. People were dying around us, including my grandfather. He was not verbal, his face was sunken and he didn’t recognise me. He only seemed to recognise his son, my dad. This hurt me. My grandfather was not my favourite person in the world, but I knew I brought him lots of joy and pride. Similar to what families of Alzheimer patients describe, I felt betrayed (even though he was the one suffering from pain) and also guilty. Was I away for too long and too often? I regretted my childish longings to live abroad, away from my boring family, only for them to fall ill and die barely a year later.

Giving my grandfather a hug, even as an adult, was something I did almost every time we visited him for holidays, out of obligation to make up for my usual bitterness towards him for making my mom struggle through emotional and physical labour for over thirty years. But sometimes you have to close the emotional gap and play your role as a grandchild. And I did my duties as a grandchild in the hospital that day too, only this time, it didn’t seem to work, or I couldn’t tell if it did because of the suit. I couldn’t see well and he simply could not have seen my face. It could’ve been anyone behind the blue polyester veil.

Personal protection equipment, or PPE, which the hazmat suit is an example of, was invented to allow medical professionals to take care of patients in close proximity. Masks are a great example of this. The plague doctor’s mask, which resembles a crow’s beak, was made for doctors to breathe clean air instead of ‘bad air’ when treating plague patients by elongating the nasal area of the mask to fill with herbs and flowers. With better understanding of airborne diseases, during the 1910-11 Manchurian plague outbreak, the mask we are most familiar with these days was proposed by Wu Liande, with fabric to filter fluids from the mouth and prevent the nose from breathing that in.1

However, PPEs like masks and hazmat suits also create a distance between the doctor and the patient, the immune and the vulnerable. First, there exists a hierarchy between the fully clothed doctors and relatively exposed patients.2 Science and health psychologists have pointed out that the relatively flimsy hospital gowns worn by patients are symbolic embodiment of the ‘sick’ role as they allow easy access to the body and thus relinquishing of control to medical professionals. Thus the hierarchical power dynamic between the doctors and patients is further reinforced by the clothes they wear – the clothed medical professional and the semi-stripped patient – and has the potential to oppress patients. I am still shocked by the purpose of the cane carried by plague doctors; the cane was part of their costume, used to examine patients and remove clothing from them without touching them and to keep people away.

As Covid took over the world, the Guardian journalist Sirin Kale took note of the ambivalent emotion the hazmat suit evokes. Rationally speaking, while encountering someone in a hazmat suit assuages as it means you are getting professional medical care, it also means you are on the ‘wrong side’ of the suit and likely to be sick, or worse, dying. This is not unlike the horrifying image we now have of the plague doctor’s mask, often a stand-in for imminent death. A French doctor in the nineteenth century is quoted as saying: ‘Think of the effect to be produced on a sick mind, a fainthearted brain, by the appearance of a ghost-like figure – when, in this very costume, the unfortunate sees the surgeon who is about to operate, what can he see in the man who should comfort him, other than a subject of horror and terror?’3

Sociologist and anthropologist Neil A. Gerlach builds on this and notes the hazmat suit functions to visually distinguish ‘diseasability.’ Some people or some places are seen as more ‘diseasable’ than others. In the case of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, the example Gerlach’s research hinges on, medical experts are photographed fully clothed in hazmat suits, or other forms of PPEs, while children and elderly people in the villages are pictured often outdoors with no PPE and no supervision, sometimes with a dead body being carried away by hazmat-suited people in the background. Although the presence of hazmat-suited people signifies that the people in the troubled area are getting the help and care that they need, the image of head-to-toe suits is troubling. It gives the impression that all elements outside of the suit are (or could be) critical to human health and thus divides those who are diseased and not.

Gerlach likened the suit and other images of decontamination to be a part of what anthropologist Mary Douglas described as part of ‘ideas that have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience.’ In my case, the untidy experience was facing my dying grandfather, or rather, my grandfather facing me, a possible external source of contamination. How do you, as a healthy being, approach the dying, the unwell who won’t get better? Is there even a good approach to this untidy experience? Though the suit was meant to protect my grandfather, it eventually marked me separate from the sick, the elderly and the dying.

I passed my parents somehow and made it downstairs first, I reached a bathroom stall and peeled off the plastic guard, the suit, the mask, the gloves and the shoe caps, and with it, the icky mix of death, guilt and sadness. My face was covered in snot and tears – I was relieved that the mask covered my face, as if it’s shameful to cry over a death in the family.

As we walked out of the hospital, my mom said he was crying. And that she felt sorry for him. I felt sorry for him too. Because he lost control over his body, because he couldn’t die at home, because he was being taken care of by strangers, because I couldn’t be one hundred percent sad about his death and because he got one of his last hugs from a person in a suit.

Monica Jae Yeon Moon is a writer in London.

  1. Christos Lynteris, “Plague Masks: The Visual Emergence of Anti-Epidemic Personal Protection Equipment,” Medical Anthropology 37, no. 6, August 18, 2018: 442–57, 

  2. Liza Morton, et al. “Baring all: The impact of the hospital gown on patient well-being.” British journal of health psychology vol. 25.3, 2020: 452-473. doi:10.1111/bjhp.12416. 

  3. Christos Lynteris, “Plague Masks: The Visual Emergence of Anti-Epidemic Personal Protection Equipment,” Medical Anthropology 37, no. 6, August 18, 2018: 442–57,